Jarad Dewing asks some questions, piratical author and former chef Jason Sheehan dishes up the answers.
In the summer of 2010, I was working as a line cook for a chain restaurant in Boston. I fancied myself quite a knife jockey, but in reality I was assembling hundreds of shitty pizzas every day for drunken Harvard students and fanny-pack tourists. Still, I had my dreams. I followed the greats – read Bourdain, watched Batali, followed the latest culinary adventures of Ripert, the Adria brothers, and The French Laundry.
And then I stumbled across a book by Jason Sheehan, James Beard award-winning food writer and former badass line warrior. In COOKING DIRTY: A Story of Life, Sex, Love, and Death in the Kitchen, I found a kindred spirit. Raucous, lurid, and often profane, this book captured my attention and let me revel in the exploits of the grungier cooks all across the country. A club to which, I might add, I count myself a proud member.
When I became Editor of EAT, DRINK & BE MANLY, the first thought I had was to interview Jason Sheehan and ask him some burning questions I’d had in the intervening years.
Throughout COOKING DIRTY, you moved around quite a bit. Even now it seems you’re criss-crossing the country every few years. Can you comment on the “I can do this job anywhere” similarities between being on the line and being behind a keyboard?
They’re actually completely opposite things. When I was a cook, there was this safety net — this idea, like you said, that I could do this anywhere. That no matter where I found myself, I could just walk into the nearest restaurant to wherever I landed and, if they needed somebody, I could have a job by that night. And that’s actually one of the great advantages of being a cook. When things — as things so often do — go sideways, a good cook or chef always has the option to just punch out. Pull the rip cord, yank off the apron, say “fuck you” to whatever boss is close by, and just move on. The world will always need someone to flip eggs, and if you’re not terribly picky (which I never was), there’ll always be work for you.
Writing for a living? That’s different. As a freelancer, sure. You can work from anywhere. But when you’ve got bills to pay and a family to support, you kinda need a staff gig, and those are few and far between these days. Especially for someone as specialized as I am. After I put down my knives and picked up a pen, I started moving around because I was chasing what jobs there were left in the great, wide weird.
How does this affect [your wife] Laura? Based on your descriptions of your relationship, I can’t imagine she’s the doe-eyed “I’ll follow him wherever he goes!” type.
No, she is definitely not that girl. But I can say that a lot of the moves we’ve made — to Denver and Philly in particular — were at her request. She wanted to move somewhere and left it to me to find a job and get us there. Thus far, I’ve been both lucky and fortunate that I’ve been able to come through for her.
Why’d you leave Denver? Your book was just published when I picked it up in the summer of 2010, and you’d won the James Beard Award for your work with Westword… seems like everything was going swimmingly.
Things were going really well, that’s true. I had the book, I’d won awards, the job was going great and I loved the city. But around the same time, my father died and it just messed me up. It was a surprising thing — a massive heart attack, completely out of the blue — and it happened one night while I was out partying at an event for the book. I jumped on a plane a few hours later, went home for the funeral, stayed for about ten days. It was the first significant amount of time I’d taken off from the job in years, and when I came back to Denver, nothing felt right. Like an idiot, I thought that something had changed in the city, not that something had changed in me, and I suddenly felt like I needed to leave this place and this job that had been so good to me for so long.
It wasn’t the wisest choice. I know that now. But it was one of those things that felt right in the moment. So we packed up our little family and all of our second-hand crap, rented a big-ass truck and headed even further west. I was running away, really. I was just too dumb then to understand what, exactly, I was running from.
And then… Seattle? Seemingly out of nowhere, to the average onlooker. Where you stayed for only a year, and as best I can find, left for “personal reasons.” I’d like to imagine some Lumberjack Mafioso saying, “He’s too acerbic, we gotta rub him out,” but I doubt it’s anything that colorful. Care to divulge the sudden migration back East?
Oh, Seattle… Yeah, I took the job in Seattle because the job in Seattle was what was available at the moment. And to save us both thousands and thousands of words, let me just say that I HATED it there. Pretty much from the moment we arrived. It wasn’t the job itself, that was fine. Liked my boss, liked the people I worked with, liked some of the restaurants. Even the weather was cool by me. But I write in a very particular style — like I’m sitting around a bar at the end of a shift, talking with a bunch of cooks. I write about myself, about my friends, about my personal experiences with restaurants. There is no wall, you know? No separation between me and what’s happening during the course of writing about a restaurant, and no separation between me and my readers. It’s a very personal, very intimate thing for me. And because of the person I am, sometimes this means I’m writing love letters and sometimes it’s also very confrontational.
Suffice it to say, the people of Denver got was I was about and the people of Seattle did not. And again, because of the person I am, I’m not going to change how I work just because I get a hundred comments or letters telling me how much I suck. No, that just made me get even more weird. So I wrote restaurant reviews in the style of Don Quixote and as dream sequences. I went full-bore gonzo and pushed the form as far as I could push it — knowing that there was no way I was going to be able to maintain it and that I was free to burn every fucking bridge because, once I left, I wasn’t ever coming back.
In the end, I actually left a little bit earlier than I intended. Laura and I had recently had another kid, and both of us were feeling like we’d been out west for a really long time (a dozen-some years for me, more for her), and that maybe it was time to try the east coast again, where we’d both come from. My family was still in Rochester. Hers are still in Philly. So, again, she put it to me — “Time to bail out, Jay. Let’s go home.” – and I came through a lot faster than I thought I would. I heard about the job in Philly, made a call the next afternoon, sent along my resume and clips and whatever, flew out for an interview a few days later, was offered the job a couple days after that, and was packed up and gone shortly thereafter.
As a coda, this ended up being a very prescient move on my part, since the paper I was leaving, Seattle Weekly, was sold maybe a year later and tuned into something… unrecognizable. Essentially, I got out just ahead of the crash.
What’re you doing now in Philadelphia? I see you on Foobooz, and you’ve got your new fiction novel PRIVATE LITTLE WAR out. Settling down closer to your roots? Or are you simply consumed with wanderlust?
A lot of it the wanderlust thing, yeah. I never really grew out of that. But now, I have a very cool gig in Philly—food editor at Philadelphia magazine and Foobooz, our food blog. Because of the culture at the magazine (and the food scene that we cover every day), I’m allowed a remarkable amount of freedom to just try any damn-fool thing that comes into my head. I get to write every day. I have a team of incredibly talented (and marginally insane) food-freaks with whom I get to plot and scheme. A lot of what I do is kind of like being the unstable but adorable Generalissimo of some raggedy-ass, under-funded, politically confused and half-drunk rebel army fighting to take over the world. Seriously, there are days when we’re just a gas mask and a Molotov cocktail away from crossing over into serious law-breaking in the name of making Philly the greatest food city in America.
And on top of all this, I also started a second career as a science fiction novelist. My inner geek has always been strong, and I am thrilled that I finally have the opportunity to let the sticky-handed and brain-damaged little monster out to play. A PRIVATE LITTLE WAR was my first novel—a military sci-fi book that is kind of a middle finger to all the other military sci-fi books out there that I can’t stand. It is a dark, blood-soaked thing about mercenary pilots flying biplanes over an alien world. I also happen to think it’s very funny, but no one seems to agree with me. My editor actually told me it had one of the most disturbing endings of any book she’d ever worked on (and I don’t like name dropping, but she’s worked on some of the best), which was one of the proudest days of my life.
And like they say in the infomercials, that’s not all. My newest novel, TALES FROM THE RADIATION AGE, just became an actual book a couple weeks ago. It started its life as an Amazon serial, but is now all complete and packaged as a finished ebook (the physical version is coming out in a couple months, I think). That one is much lighter, much less grim, all full of dinosaurs and giant robots and spies and prostitutes and sea monsters and whiskey-drinking and parallel universes. And my favorite thing about it is that it’s set in and around Denver, shortly after the end of the world. It’s a book written for those who think that the apocalypse and total anarchy could be a lot of fun if you approach it with the right attitude.
Let’s talk kitchen life for a moment. Most of the characters in COOKING DIRTY are larger-than-life miscreants, yourself included. Having worked the line myself for years, I can assume these portrayals are barely, if at all, exaggerated. Why does the line attract assholes, addicts, and myriad ne’er-do-wells?
There are a couple characters in there that are amalgams—two or three guys jammed together into one. But you’re right. As weird and terrifying as it might be to civilians, I really didn’t need to exaggerate at all…
As for the why? Because kitchens, especially back when I was working in them, were like the Foreign Legion. You mostly ended up on the line because something in your life had gone very wrong at some point. You ended up there because the kitchen was the ultimate American meritocracy—if you could hang, if you could do the job well, night after night after night, then nothing else mattered. That kind of thing was very attractive to a certain class of human being.
Today, things are different. Not completely, but in a lot of ways.
Why, for that matter, is the “steel box of meat and fire” so often populated by testosterone-fueled machismo? I’ve known a few badass female chefs in my time, but they’re the exception. The rule seems to be dick jokes and other heteronormative posturing. Is the commercial kitchen somehow inherently a boy’s club? Is it an enclave of traditional masculine views, or is it a different phenomenon altogether?
Again, it used to be. Things are changing. We’re all maturing — slowly but surely. But in defense of the old-fashioned kitchen with its dick jokes and whatever, let me say this: We were cool with girls.
We were cool with criminals. We were cool with junkies and dealers and freaks of all description. It didn’t matter if you were black or white or brown or green. Didn’t matter if you were gay, straight or something in between. ALL that mattered was whether or not you could do the job, handle the (admittedly not very nice) culture that existed in most kitchens, and hang with the family. In that, it was actually a remarkably inclusive and welcoming tribe. Like a day care center for society’s dregs and discards, filled with knives and fire and boiling oil and liquor.
What characteristics of being a good chef, or good writer, for that matter, are universal in defining one’s self as a good person?What values or lessons have you carried over from your knife-wielding days to your pen-slinging ones, and are any of those themes useful when it comes to being a good male partner in a relationship?
Yeah, I think so. Being a cook taught me the value of hard work — of very hard work, which has never hurt anyone. It taught me loyalty — and, more importantly, exactly how far loyalty should stretch. It taught me that the family comes first and fuck everyone else. It taught me that the world is filled with a million different kinds of people and that you don’t know shit about any of them until you’ve stood a shift beside them.
As a writer, I learned different lessons. I learned mercy, consideration and, to a certain extent, peace. It put me more in touch with my own feelings about everything, because I was forced, week after week, to confront and discuss and defend them.
In both cases, I learned about the power of people coming together — over a meal, a drink, a conversation. And finally, I learned that even the worst day has an end and that both the most spectacular and the most abysmal should be capped off with a nice whiskey and the understanding that tomorrow is a new day. Everything begins again on every morning you wake up alive.